Munich Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Munich Conference formalized the capitulation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his French ally to Adolf Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland but failed to slake Hitler’s thirst for power.

Summary of Event

As soon as Germany had annexed Austria in March, 1938, Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany, accelerated his political operations against the democracy of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Although Czechoslovakia was stronger and more populous than Austria, it was also more divided internally as a result of the decision of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to draw its frontiers along economic and strategic rather than ethnic lines. Included in the new Czech state was the Sudetenland, a mountainous border area in western Czechoslovakia that was historically Austrian, linguistically German, and inhabited by more than three million people who were opposed to Czech domination. The region was strongly pro-Nazi. [kw]Munich Conference (Sept. 29-30, 1938) [kw]Conference, Munich (Sept. 29-30, 1938) Munich Conference World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Sudetenland, German occupation [g]Germany;Sept. 29-30, 1938: Munich Conference[09830] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 29-30, 1938: Munich Conference[09830] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Sept. 29-30, 1938: Munich Conference[09830] Beneš, Edvard Chamberlain, Neville Daladier, Édouard Hácha, Emil Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Munich Conference Mussolini, Benito [p]Mussolini, Benito;Munich Conference Runciman, Walter

The Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria) greatly intensified pan-German sentiment in the Sudetenland and correspondingly increased the power of the Sudeten German Party. Outwardly, the party worked for Sudeten autonomy within the Czech state, but during the summer months of 1938, Sudeten negotiators continually rejected proposals for settlements put forth by the Czech government in Prague. Secretly, the Sudeten German Party took orders from Hitler, who, unknown to the rest of the world, sought to dismember and ultimately destroy Czechoslovakia. As early as April, 1938, Hitler discussed with his cabinet plans to provide additional Lebensraum (living space) for the German people. This undisclosed plan, known to insiders as Operation Green, was the blueprint for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Since 1924, Czechoslovakia had been allied with France, an alliance that provided also for Soviet support, contingent on prior French support. By 1938, France had decided that it could not maintain its Eastern European alliances without the support of Great Britain. In the last analysis, support of Czechoslovakia against German aims depended on Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, was convinced that there were injustices in the treaties of 1919 that had to be removed if peace were to be preserved. He mistakenly believed that Hitler shared his abhorrence of war and that Hitler’s objectives in Czechoslovakia were limited; he therefore favored a policy of appeasement. Instead of standing firmly behind Edvard Beneš, the president of Czechoslovakia, and his government in their efforts to resist German pressure, Chamberlain continually urged Beneš to make maximum concessions. In August, Chamberlain sent Walter Runciman, an English politician and millionaire shipbuilder, as an “impartial mediator” to investigate Czech-Sudeten differences at first hand. Runciman had no prior experience in such matters, and his pro-German sympathies were soon detected. The fact that Hitler was instructing the Sudeten leaders to keep increasing their demands remained hidden.

In September, when it became evident that Hitler was preparing an armed attack on Czechoslovakia and that the Czechs intended to resist, Chamberlain made three visits to Germany in the space of fourteen days. On September 15, at Hitler’s mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain conceded the right of self-determination to the Sudetens and promised to win acceptance of this point from the French and Czech governments. After this initial meeting, Chamberlain believed he had averted a general war, telling his sister, “I have no doubt whatever . . . that my visit alone prevented an invasion.” He met Hitler again on September 22 at Bad Godesberg, a small town on the Rhine River, only to find that this concession was no longer enough. Hitler now demanded immediate Czech evacuation of the Sudetenland and German military occupation before the holding of any plebiscite. Even Chamberlain balked at such bullying.

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (left) shakes hands with German chancellor Adolf Hitler at the signing of the Munich Agreement.

(Library of Congress)

The outbreak of a general war seemed imminent, and on September 24 the Czechs mobilized in preparation for war, refusing to give in to Hitler. Chamberlain made a final effort to prevent hostilities, however, by proposing a four-power conference, which he asked Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, to urge upon Hitler. On September 29, Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini, and the French premier, Édouard Daladier, met in Munich, at what became known as the Munich Conference. Together, without representatives of Czechoslovakia or its Soviet ally, they reached agreement on the Sudeten question. Relieved at the outcome of the Munich Conference, Chamberlain declared the settlement a “peace with honor.” Abandoned by its allies, Czechoslovakia had no alternative but to relinquish the region to Hitler.

Significance

The Munich Agreement provided for the speedy and peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany and for an international guarantee of the reduced Czech state once the territorial demands of the Poles and Hungarians had been fulfilled. Chamberlain did prevent, at least temporarily, Hitler’s military advance on the Czechs. He also secured Hitler’s signature to an Anglo-German consultative pact, which he naïvely hoped would prevent the Nazi leader from acting unilaterally in the future. He paid an enormous price, however—soon the connotations of “sellout” and “peace at any price” would become attached to the terms “appeasement” and “Munich.”

Czechoslovakia made its settlement with Poland, but difficulties with Hungary brought German and Italian intervention to determine the new Czech-Hungarian frontier. The British and French did not seem disturbed by the fact that they were not consulted, and they did not press strongly for the promised guarantee of the remainder of the Czech state.

Hitler worked through the Slovak and Ruthenian nationalist groups to complete the destruction of the Czech state. Finally, in March of 1939, after brutally browbeating the new Czech president, Emil Hácha, in Berlin, Hitler forced the surrender of Bohemia and Moravia, established Slovakia as a German satellite, and assigned Ruthenia to Hungary. Thus, after months of negotiations and concessions to appease Hitler, the remainder of Czechoslovakia was finally occupied by Nazi troops, which had been Hitler’s plan from the outset. These flagrant violations of the Munich Agreement belatedly awakened Chamberlain to the fact that Hitler was seeking not merely the self-determination of German-speaking people but also the domination of all Europe.

Among historians, the Munich Agreement has remained a source of debate. Although it is, as David Clay Large has put it, “one of the most widely condemned acts of diplomacy in modern history,” defenders of the pact insist that even the slightest chance for peace warranted Chamberlain’s decision to make the agreement with Germany. Moreover, Chamberlain’s efforts allowed the Western powers a vital year to improve their armaments, strengthen their armed forces, plan their strategies, and prepare their countries psychologically for another war. Critics of the agreement contend the Germans actually improved their military position relative to the West in that same vital year, and that the agreement predisposed the Soviet Union toward an accommodation with Germany. Whatever the case, it is clear that Hitler’s intention was not peace but war. Munich Conference World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Sudetenland, German occupation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, R. J. Q. British Appeasement and the Origins of World War II. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1994. Examines Britain’s role in the lead-up to World War II. Sections titled “Variety of Opinion” and “The Search for Lessons” are especially informative on the topic of the Munich Conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumont, Maurice. The Origins of the Second World War. Translated by Simone de Couvreur Ferguson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. Concise yet thorough review of events leading up to and including the Munich Conference. Discusses also the Soviet response to the pact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dutton, David. Neville Chamberlain. London: Hodder Arnold, 2001. Focuses on Chamberlain’s public life and how the events of his years as prime minister were perceived at the time and have been perceived since. Includes chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eubank, Keith. “The Road to War, 1938.” In The Origins of World War II. 3d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2004. Focuses on Czechoslovakia, negotiations between Hitler and Chamberlain, and the agreement among Germany, Britain, France, and Italy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Kenneth M., and David Hendrickson, eds. The Meaning of Munich Fifty Years Later. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1990. Collection of essays provides a variety of viewpoints on the significance of the Munich pact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Large, David Clay. “’Peace for Our Time’: Appeasement and the Munich Conference.” In Between Two Fires: Europe’s Path in the 1930’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Provides an insightful, detailed narrative of the process of appeasement, meetings between Hitler and Chamberlain, and the Munich Conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Telford. Munich: The Price of Peace. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Lengthy and exhaustive study of every facet of the Munich Agreement, replete with details of the events leading to, during, and following the fateful conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watt, Donald Cameron. How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-1939. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. Examines the final two years of peace and discusses the roles of appeasement and the Munich Conference in the onset of general war.

France Occupies the Ruhr

Beer Hall Putsch

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

Kristallnacht

Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact

Germany Invades Poland

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